By Brian Wise | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The provenance of a musical instrument—its history of ownership and possession—is a crucial factor in determining its value and its mystique. But how crucial is it to know that a violin had just four previous owners since the late 18th century, one of whom was Mozart?
The question arises in the case of a violin that Mozart is believed to have owned as a teenager and on which he composed his five violin concertos, between 1773 and 1775. The instrument was built in the early 1700s by a member of the Klotz family of luthiers, in the Bavarian town of Mittenwald. Because it was likely regarded as a relic soon after Mozart’s death, the instrument was not altered in the 19th century, and thus has its original neck and fingerboard.
While a typical Klotz violin would today sell for between $15,000 and $25,000, this one has an insurance value “somewhere in the seven figures,” says Ulrich Leisinger, director of the research department at the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, which owns the instrument. He adds that whenever it is taken out of the foundation’s vault, one of two security guards must always be standing by.
Christoph Koncz, principal second violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic, has given several performances on the Klotz and believes that its allure is justified. “Because Mozart played on this violin, I’m convinced that this experience inspired him personally in how to write violin concertos,” he says. “He really uses the strengths of this particular instrument in his concertos. The upper register is very beautiful, and it has a shiny, silvery tone, which is very often employed in all the concertos.”
In October 2020, Koncz released the first-ever recording of Mozart’s complete violin concertos on the Klotz, joined by the French period-instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre. Days later, Koncz and the orchestra presented the instrument in a video-streamed performance from the Mozarteum Foundation (the Klotz was previously featured in a 1992 recording of Mozart’s violin sonatas, performed by Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist András Schiff).
“To my astonishment, the value went up simply because it was stolen.”
In truth, a little faith is required to link the Klotz to Mozart. It’s believed that when the composer departed Salzburg for Vienna in 1781, he left the instrument behind with his sister Nannerl. The first documentary evidence of its existence is a certificate by Marie Trestl from 1842, which states that her father acquired the violin from Nannerl in 1820. Subsequent owners included a violin professor and a pharmacist, before the Mozarteum took ownership in 1956.
Leisinger feels confident about its authenticity. “In the early 19th century, there was not a big fuss over Mozart as a violin player, because not even his concertos were regarded as great music,” he said. As a result, there was no good reason to falsify its provenance. “I think we are fairly sure about it, even if there is not a handwritten document signed by Mozart’s sister saying, ‘This is my brother’s instrument that I give to you.’”
In the 18th century, Klotz instruments were thought of as “the most distinguished instruments from Mittenwald,” says Philip J. Kass, an appraiser, consultant, and contributor to Strings. “The instruments were considered very good quality and they are actually very good quality.”Still, he adds, no historian would place the instrument in the same camp as a classical Cremonese violin, and it’s difficult to determine how much of a premium is warranted for its celebrity owner.
A Markup for Fame
A great performer effectively serves as an endorsement of a fine instrument’s worth but there are many competing factors that can affect value. They include condition, newness to the market, year of construction, and simple supply and demand.
“It is a constellation of factors that make a Strad worth what a Strad is,” says Jason Price, founder and director of Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows. “But if you have a Stradivari that was owned by Sarasate and a Stradivari that was owned by a good, accomplished musician—but not a name that resonates with an audience 100 years after his death—the Sarasate is going to win.” (There were two Strads associated with the 19th-century virtuoso Pablo Sarasate: the 1724 “Sarasate” and the 1713 “Boissier.”)
For a more concrete example, Price points to a recent sale at Tarisio that included two “quite average” German violin bows by Carl Albert Nürnberger. Both of the bows had belonged to Tibor Varga and sold for $4,600 and $6,600, respectively. “Varga was no Mozart but he was an icon of the 20th century and an important musical figure,” Price says. “Those bows went for three times what they would have gone for normally because of the attachment to him.”
Instruments linked to famous musicians generally tend to sell more quickly, says Kass. He recalls how, in 2003, a violin by Samuel Zygmuntowicz built for Isaac Stern sold at auction for $130,000—it was the highest price ever for an instrument by a living luthier. The sale ended when one of the anonymous bidders acknowledged that a comparable Zygmuntowicz violin could be had for about $35,000. “One of them decided, ‘Stern’s name is not worth that much to me,’” he said. “But it had the cachet of being great.”
Another example of an instrument’s mystique being enhanced by a famous former player involves a c. 1740 Guarneri del Gesù, which San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums loaned to San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik in 2002. At the time, it made headlines for being the favorite violin of Jascha Heifetz. In fact, Heifetz owned a number of notable instruments in his lifetime, including two Strads. But the Guarneri, nicknamed the “David,” after the virtuoso Ferdinand David, was the one Heifetz frequently used in recordings, and was prized for its robust, rich tone. In recent times, Stern, Perlman, and Gil Shaham have taken the “David” out for special performances.
Value Driven by History
Setting objective standards for what should be included in the provenance of an art object is never clear-cut, write the art-law attorneys Ronald Spencer and Gary Sesser in a 2013 column for Artnet News. “While theoretically intended to be a ‘chain of title’ that should include every owner of the work since its creation,” they write, “provenance typically tends to be a non-exclusive listing of interesting facts concerning the background of the work, such as notable former owners (at least those who are willing to have their identities disclosed) and the exhibition of the work at prestigious venues.”
Interesting facts that influence value include thefts. Former Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster Frank Almond says that the value of the “Lipinski” Stradivari, on which he performs, climbed after the instrument was stolen and recovered in a 2014. “To my astonishment, the value went up simply because it was stolen,” he says (its fair replacement value at the time was $5 million). “That was strictly because it was such an amazing tale, such a crazy saga. Then throw in who played it, who owned it, and there’s a lot of history and fame.”
A rival to Paganini, the Polish violin virtuoso Karol Lipinski was a flamboyant figure whose fame in early 19th-century Europe far outweighed that of the violin’s first known owner, Giuseppe Tartini. “The simple reason that it wound up with the title ‘Lipinski’ was because he was way more famous than Tartini,” says Almond, who has chronicled the violin’s history on a website called A Violin’s Life. He adds that while there are certainly more evocative nicknames—think of the “Cannon,” the “Messiah,” or the “Venus”—the “Lipinski” has achieved household name status.
Piecing together a sequence of ownership and possession involves the scrutiny of many documents: certifications of authenticity, estate records, appraisals, photographs, ledgers, bills of sale, and diaries. Researchers may also investigate labels that have been removed, damaged, or tampered with. At the end of this process, should musicians care if an instrument was touched by a Paganini or a Mozart?
“Provenance is obviously important for all sorts of historical art objects, but it somehow adds something extra for these usable musical instruments,” explains Tarisio’s Price. “You can own a painting and tell me it was owned by Napoleon, and that’s great; we can say Napoleon used to look at it. But if you can say, ‘I own a violin and it used to be played by Mozart,’ now you think, ‘My gosh, when I play it, I sound like Mozart.’ It lets us open up our imaginations and it certainly adds a romantic element. It’s a very significant thing.”
Given the psychological power of an instrument’s former ownership, no doubt there are those still looking for notable “instruments that got away.” For example, modern historians have not traced the violins owned by Antonio Vivaldi (who died in poverty and likely with few possessions) or Arcangelo Corelli (who is believed to have owned a 1693 Strad, but preferred a fiddle by the Tyrolean maker Mathias Albani). Also missing is J.S. Bach’s violin, made by Jacob Stainer. Though it is listed among the eight instruments in Bach’s estate inventory, the historical record quickly runs dry.
Koncz, of the Vienna Philharmonic, may one day revisit Mozart’s Klotz, but when it comes to performing with a full-size orchestra, his faithful instrument, the 1707 “Brüstlein” Stradivari, serves the purpose admirably. “Of course, I know my Stradivari has passed through many different generations before and hopefully it will continue this way,” he says. “You feel like you are part of the journey.”